Tilson Thomas also sets this festival apart by making Cunningham’s dances as a significant element. Cage and Cunningham (a single name in some circles) were intimately linked, personally and artistically, from 1938, when Cage was an accompanist at a Seattle arts college Cunningham attended, until the composer’s death. The charismatic Cage is usually credited with the concepts behind their work, but their creative symbiosis makes it difficult to separate one from the other. They created countless works together, and Cunningham’s dances brought the ideas to vivid, physical life.
The dances have been staged by Patricia Lent, a former member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company who licenses and teaches his pieces for the Merce Cunningham Trust. New World School of the Arts students will perform Sixteen Dances, a lost piece from the 1940s reinvented for this show. Two former Cunningham dancers, Andrea Weber and Brandon Collwes, will perform a radically re-imagined version of Second Hand, which Cunningham made to Cage’s 1969 composition Cheap Imitation, itself a rearrangement of a Satie piece. Rashaun Mitchell, a choreographer and former Cunningham dancer, restaged its third section for Weber and Collwes, who move around the orchestra and interact with archival video of the Cunningham troupe in the original choreography.
Cage and Cunningham would have enjoyed the reinvention, Lent says.
“Something Merce said many times is he’d rather say yes than no,” she says. “At first Rashaun’s idea really threw me. But now I feel like it’s a really intriguing way to present this work.”
The combination is even more inventive in Renga, in which NWS musicians will join New World School dancers in Field Dances, a Cunningham work that hasn’t been performed since the early 1960s. The choreography lets the dancers choose from a menu of movements, many as simple as walking or skipping. How it will all work she doesn’t know.
“It’s an experiment,” Lent says. “I think it’ll be a bit of a circus, and that’s part of the idea.”
Cage, so fascinated with the world’s chaos, would probably have liked that idea. Whether audiences are comfortable with this kind of sensory circus is another question.
“The truth is the world still doesn’t really know who John Cage is,” Kuhn says.
And yet the changes Cage helped propel have made people much more willing to — as Cunningham said — “just look and listen.”
“I find more people who are really curious,” says La Barbara. “The world is out there to explore. If you come to a concert, you want to be surprised, to hear something new.”